Thursday, February 8, 2018

album review: 'here come the runts' by AWOLNATION

You know, for as wild and messy as AWOLNATION's records have been, I'm a little surprised I don't think about them more often. Seriously, it's been about three years since I covered Run on this channel and I don't think I've revisited even a single song since - which is kind of strange, because I do mostly remember that record's problems in overly-broad songwriting and utterly slapdash production, and I remember the backlash I got pointing that out - hell, probably more than I remember any individual song.

But that's the funny thing about AWOLNATION: they always seemed like a weird, misshapen hybrid of an electronic rock group that somehow struck gold when 'Sail' almost by accident became a monster hit in 2013, a full two years after Megalithic Symphony came out. And yet that song made a certain amount of sense at the time: AWOLNATION could be a band that made hits if the disparate elements came together, but the cracks in their formula ran so deep - and were exacerbated by their 2015 follow-up Run - that it seemed incredibly unlikely the alchemy would come together again.

And yet for some reason their next album showed up on my schedule - and what was strange was the buzz around it, namely that everyone was admitting it was messy, but this time the whiplash transition had actually worked? Encouraging, sure, but I'd believe it when I heard it... but I'm also not going to say I wasn't morbidly curious. So okay, what did I get with Here Comes The Runts?

Oh boy, this'll be an interesting record to talk about, because folks weren't kidding when they said that this record was a shift for AWOLNATION, a pivot away from the blocky, overblown electronic rock of their previous work to something slightly more organic and guitar-driven, closer to the noisier side of indie rock than anything else. Frontman Aaron Bruno claims to have been inspired by artists like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and The Cars putting this together, and while I see some of that comparison in looking to make direct, meat-and-potatoes rock music - especially with The Cars - the comparison that springs much more to mind is a slightly more ragged group like early Superchunk or other, slightly more pop-leaning alternative rock bands in the mid-to-late 90s - potent hooks but less developed grooves or songwriting. And yet on some level, I can't help but feel that while this might not hit the soaring individual heights of previous AWOLNATION records, it's probably got the sonic palette I like the most and strongest sense of cohesion - and yes, I'm saying that about a record that seems to change genres mid-album!

Now that might be overstating things - again, like every AWOLNATION record this album is all over the damn place - but it's hard not to see the whiplash shifts: the opening title track is half rooted in a blocky, bassy synth you might have heard on previous albums, before some well-executed shifts towards a galloping main guitar riff that wouldn't be far removed from thrash metal, except with more synth horns and a slightly more liquid groove. And yet for as much as those synths and horns might show up as accents, where they might have driven the songs earlier records the blocky, buzzy guitar riffs are immediately much more prominent, sometimes even getting a little thicker groove on 'Miracle Man'... which I'll admit I liked more when it was released last year from The Killers called 'The Man'. But even still, it's at least a moment when those revving guitars can establish a consistent groove, which I certainly prefer to the out-of-nowhere and painfully awkward rap breakdown on 'Sound Witness System', or the very gentle acoustic grooves on 'Handyman' and 'Seven Sticks Of Dynamite', the latter of which finally gets going but it's too little, too late. And then, after a brief interlude, this record dips into midtempo territory on 'Table For One' and 'My Molasses' - and yeah, I like the latter song for the horns and the vocal harmonies - like the last AWOLNATION record the multi-tracked vocal arrangements are pretty great and songs where we're forced to rely on Aaron Bruno alone in the mix really suffer for it - but it doesn't seem like any consideration was given to sequencing or flow. And for the final four songs it happens again: solid, aggressive underlying riffs on 'Cannonball' and 'Stop That Train', but in between them we have two tracks with half-assembled grooves trying to claw themselves out of the muddy mix.

And what's so damn frustrating is that AWOLNATION should know better than this by now - unlike most bands they actually seem to have a solid grasp on tempo shifts and internal song transitions, so why this record doesn't flow better beyond a few moments doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. But fine, we've got some solid, chunky riff rock and good vocal harmonies and even some decent grooves, and AWOLNATION has proven themselves capable of writing good hooks - hell, I'll even say the guitars actually have some potent tone to them. But when I started digging into the actual melodies on the guitars, and outside of the hooks they just seem a shade away from the necessary chord shift to really drive it home. Granted, the heavy repetition all across this project doesn't help, but take a song like the hook of 'Miracle Man' - good underlying tone, but it doesn't really modulate as much as it could before returning to a base chord, which leaves the compositions just feeling a tad undercooked. And once I noticed it I couldn't stop noticing it - 'Handyman', 'Seven Sticks Of Dynamite', 'Tall Tall Tale', even a song like 'Cannonball' which arguably has one of the best hooks on the record! 

And I don't think I would have noticed it nearly as much if it wasn't for the lyrics - and I think I've found my answer to why AWOLNATION songs just never really stick with me, because there are rock songs that go broad and then there is AWOLNATION and their collection of half-formed, manic underdog anthems where he is either spraying everything on all cylinders to propel you to the top... or sliding towards utter self-loathing and then implicitly asking the audience to justify it. Hell, it's what cripples 'Jealous Buffoon', an otherwise strong tune but filled with the flimsy self-justification that doesn't exactly command nuance. Granted, even that's a degree of complexity that isn't afforded 'Miracle Man' or the title track or 'Cannonball' or 'Passion' or even 'Seven Sticks Of Dynamite', which leaves you struggling for sort of coherent theme or idea beyond the most basic. Now normally that's not an issue - fine, it's just hard-headed rock music, I can get pulled into this... except then you get tunes like 'My Molasses' which plays into self-flagellating mortification remarkably well, or 'Stop That Train', where the protagonist realizes he's over-committed and has to stop - again, broad sentiments, but the framing is there to make it work, even if individual details in the metaphors make less sense the more you think about them. 

So look, I don't dislike this AWOLNATION record - it's playing in a sonic palette I like, and even despite the whiplash transitions and genre digressions, it helps that at the core there's a greater sense of groove and stronger riffs. But with that in place, it still feels undercooked to me, with a mixed rate of success in the instrumentals shifts, melodies that don't quite seem as catchy as they could be, and writing that rarely if ever coalesces. For me, I'm giving it a light 6/10, but I am recommending it if you want to hear AWOLNATION fly off the rails again, just with a little more foundation this time. And hey, they might not quite be the band for me just yet, but they are stepping in the right direction, and I'll look forward to hearing more.

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